Historians have long debated why Europe—a region whose societies in the Middle Ages were generally no more advanced than those in China, Japan, South Asia, and the Middle East—came to dominate the world just a few centuries later. Some have pointed out that unlike most of the world’s regions, which had consolidated into large empires by the 1500s, western Europe, despite periodic bids for “universal monarchy,” remained a fragmented region of competing states. This plural political order helped generate centuries of intra-European competition and war, creating incentives that did not exist elsewhere for innovations in property rights, taxation, and military technology and ultimately leading to rapid increases in state capabilities and huge power asymmetries between Europe and the rest of the world. Hoffman’s fascinating book builds on those insights, arguing that thanks in part to heavy spending on gunpowder, European rulers engaged in a sequence of “winner-take-all tournaments” that led to outsize expenditures on military technology. Hoffman acknowledges that the “ultimate cause” of the European triumph was thus the continent’s political fragmentation, which he sees as the product of “political history.” That, of course, raises a question that he doesn’t quite tackle: What explains political history?
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